What’s in Your E-Cigarette?
Feb. 18, 2015 -- As the popularity of electronic cigarettes has grown over the past several years, so have concerns over the health risks tied to them.
The New England Journal of Medicine, for example, recently published a letter from researchers that set off alarm bells. They reported that some e-cigarettes release formaldehyde, a probable cancer-causing substance (or carcinogen), when heated with batteries set at high voltages.
On Jan. 28, the California State Department of Public Health released a report declaring e-cigarettes a public health threat and calling for regulation.
So, What’s in E-cigarettes?
That’s not an easy question to answer. No federal agency oversees the e-cigarette industry. That means no standards exist. Labels may inaccurately describe ingredients, and what you find in one brand may be vastly different from that found in another, for better or worse.
The results of one FDA review of 18 different e-cigarette cartridges found toxic and carcinogenic chemicals in some but not others. All but one of the cartridges labeled “no nicotine” did, in fact, contain nicotine. The authors suggest that “quality control processes used to manufacture these products are inconsistent or non-existent.”
Here’s some of what we do know.
E-liquid, or e-juice, is the name for the solution that’s heated up and converted to an aerosol, which e-cigarette users inhale. Here are its most common ingredients:
Nicotine: The addictive ingredient in e-cigarettes and regular cigarettes, nicotine stimulates the central nervous system and raises blood pressure, respiration, and heart rate. “People smoke because of the nicotine,” says researcher Maciej Goniewicz, PhD, PharmD. He's a tobacco and e-cigarette expert at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y.
While it's addictive, nicotine doesn't cause cancer, says Goniewicz: “What causes concern are the other chemicals (in the e-liquid).”
Flavorings: Goniewicz says hundreds of flavors exist, including cherry, cheesecake, cinnamon, and tobacco. Many of those flavoring chemicals, he says, are also used to flavor food.
“These are the big unknowns,” he says. “When we eat them, they are safe, but we don’t know what’s going on when we inhale them.”